I always make it a point to visit the synagogue on the Jewish new year or Rosh-Hashanna, when the shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown: it resounds with a sound as ancient as time. To mark the occasion, we eat apples dipped in honey along with a sweet called chik-cha halwa, which is the essence of Bene Israel Jewish cuisine. This halwa, made with coconut milk, wheat extract and sugar, has a smooth and silky texture, a jelly-like consistency. Its subtle sweetness increases with each bite.
Last year, on Rosh-Hashanna, as I prepared to leave the synagogue in the evening, before curfew was imposed, my friend Julie slipped a small cardboard box into my bag. When I opened it at home, I was touched to see a few pieces of chik-cha halwa, which she had made for her family and kept aside some for me. Chik-cha halwa is rarely made now, since preparing it needs time, patience and expertise.
Whenever the shofar is blown in the synagogue, we, the Bene Israel Jews, remember our history. Some 2,000 years ago, we arrived from Israel in a ship, fleeing from the sword of the Greek warlord Antioch, who had established supremacy over King Solomon’s second Temple. Some survived, some didn’t. The latter were buried at a graveyard in Alibaug near Mumbai. We also lost our Books in the shipwreck. But our ancestors retained their oral memory of Hebrew prayers, some rituals, and the dietary law, ‘Thou shalt not cook the young lamb in its mother’s milk.’ With this as background, they tried to preserve their Jewish heritage in India.
According to the dietary law, they could not mix dairy products with meat dishes. So our matriarchs decided to use coconut milk in their cuisine, creating a variety of curries. Whenever I cook a Jewish dish, I feel the presence of the matriarchs around me.
My earliest memory of the Jewish new year is associated with grandmother Shebabeth and the chik-cha halwa she made for the family. She employed young women of different communities who lived around the family house as her kitchen assistants. Affectionately known as Maa, grandmother was small, petite and plump.
When she laughed, her eyes filled with tears and her pink cheeks resembled chik-cha halwa. Her laughter was so infectious that her assistants laughed along, for no reason at all.
Making the halwa was a ritual. First, Maa would hold a coconut to her ear like a conch shell and listen to the sound of sweet water in its belly. She would then break it on the floor and her maids would grate it, sitting on a morli, a short stool with a crescent-shaped metal scythe fitted to it. The grated coconut was ground with water in a stone mortar and strained twice through a muslin cloth to extract the milk; the first press kept apart from the second. Meanwhile, a wheat extract was prepared by soaking wheat grains for three consequent nights, then pounded it in a stone mortar, and drying the grains in the sun on a soft muslin cloth until they turned into granules. Called chik,this is now available in some speciality shops in Mumbai.
Maa would take a big, heavy-bottomed vessel, fill it with coconut milk mixed with sugar and a pinch of salt, and set it on the stove. She dissolved the chik in a bowl of water, added it to the coconut milk and brought it to a rolling boil while adding the second press of coconut milk, stirring continuously. Four hours later, Maa would dissolve edible rose-pink colour in a bowl of coconut milk and pour it in the bubbling mixture.
The halwa, blushing like her flushed cheeks, was almost ready. She would smile triumphantly as the aroma of the halwa filled the house. She would stand over it, majestically sprinkling it with cardamom powder, chopped pistachio and almonds. Her eyes never left the halwa, which had to be of the right consistency. Once the vessel was taken off the fire, her assistants poured the halwa into greased thalis.
Maa always said, “Halwa has to be soft, pink and light like a flower.” On new year nights, we ate halwa till we burst at the seams.
Although I make Jewish dishes, I cannot make halwa. But while researching for one of my novels, I met Julie Joseph Pingle at the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad. She is an expert at making halwa, which is similar to my grandmother’s. Thus I regained a whole tradition of Jewish food.
On new year’s eve, we cover platters of offerings and chik-cha halwa with silken ceremonial textiles embroidered with Hebrew words, which are symbolic of joy, happiness and a new beginning.